Chris Duke: A Blues Musician and Window Glass Painter in San Francisco

with 19 Comments

If there was ever such thing as an artist’s bible, it should be Van Gogh’s Letters written to his brother Theo. – Chris Duke

Life is full of surprises, and you just never know what happens. Not so long ago, we were strolling around Alamo Square in San Francisco. Two blocks away, on the corner of McAllister and Steiner, a dozen hand-painted window glasses caught our attention.


No, this is not a garage sale. These are definitely artworks and the artist’s studio was clearly just down there in the basement of a Victorian house. The door was open and there were many other paintings inside. We were wondering whether the studio was open to the public, when Chris Duke showed up. He invited us in to take a look at the painting he was working on: a panorama of San Francisco’s skyline painted in broad strokes on a long horizontal window glass. Next to this eccentric cityscape stood a dozen more discarded antique Victorian windows, all richly painted.


While we were still marveling at his authentic artworks, Chris Duke picked up a wooden hand-made accordion. He closed his eyes, hit a few notes, then explained that his instrument was made out of a discarded drawer. Seeing that we were all eyes and ears, he offered us to follow him to his backyard. We settled in, and he started rolling a joint.


You see, I started painting a long time ago. At first, it was on canvas. It had always been on canvas like for everyone else. But one day, about 15 years ago I think, there was no canvas left in my stack. But instead I found a discarded window glass. I needed to paint, I really needed to paint, and all I had was an old window. And so I used it, I painted on it. When I finished that new piece, I turned the window around and thought wow! The colors were so much more intense on glass. I loved it!


And since then, painting on window glasses has become Chris Duke’s main signature. He also keeps painting on the reverse of the windows, without looking at the front side until he is done :


If you’re painting on canvas, you’re monitoring the whole thing from the beginning until the end. But if you paint on the reverse of windows, you can’t picture the result until you consider it to be finished. And when you turn around the window, the outcome is always different…


Just like the 19th century painter Van Gogh, whom he greatly admires, Duke paints from memory, and paints what he feels, not what he sees. Onsite, he sketches and locates the landmarks, such as the Transamerica Pyramid, the Telegraph Hill and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Once at home, he paints the city the way he remembers and feels it.



But Chris Duke is not just a painter. He is also a musician. In fact, he started his career as a musician in Louisville, KY, where he grew up with his 13 brothers and sisters. His father, “a great man”, a priest, was also a musician. Duke and his siblings played music all the time. And today, he still plays music whenever he is not painting. He plays at home, in his (beautifully wild) garden, but also when walking down the streets.


When we asked him where he gets his creativity from, Duke smiled and said:


People should reach in… It’s all there, inside of you. You just gotta tap into that well of yours. I don’t know whether I’m a great painter or not. What really matters is that you do what you love, and love what you do. Art comes from love and generosity. You just have to offer it to the world. Either it takes it or leaves it. Just as simple as that.


And just as simple as that, he offered us a beautiful song before we left: “No one can tell you…”




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Meeting artist and musician Chris Duke in San Francisco ©


Follow Mei and Kerstin:

Travelers - Storytellers

Travelers at heart, Mei and Kerstin have been roaming the world together since 2002. Expats for over a decade, they used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens, and San Francisco. Now back in their country Luxembourg, they continue to travel whenever they can, despite their full-time job. Their travel stories are meant to make you leave your couch and explore the globe.

19 Responses

  1. Linda Barth
    | Reply

    I need to find Chris. He and another musician friend used to play when Chris lived in Brisbane. Whren they stopped playing gigs we lost track of him. I do have a few sketches he did for me and I play his songs often. Tell him that Linda posted “This Bridge” on YouTube along with “Fisher of Men”. Please have him contact me via Facebook…Linda Barth….

  2. Jessica Warren
    | Reply

    I know personally what a multi talented, affectionate, caring man he is. He found me, lost and at my lowest. Grabbed me by my collar and stood me up. In fact, I was even able to stand taller than I ever had before. He is beautiful inside and out and I hope he is sitting somewhere now spreading his wisdom and love.

  3. tanamerarumbai
    | Reply

    No wonder it’s a surprise for you. I’m not good at art appreciation, but I really like his painting of San Francisco on the six section of glasses, next to Sun Flower. If only I can paint like him.

  4. Cai Dominguez
    | Reply

    His artwork is impressive. Plus his voice too. “The way he paints the city on how he feel it” I’m impress. Hope to meet him someday.

  5. Eve Kay
    | Reply

    What a great story and concept to paint on glass windows! The paintings look beautiful. I also love what he said about Van Gogh – we were at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and saw many of his letters to Theo. They were numerous and great to read. Chris is a wise and talented man and I wish him a lot of success in his art and music career!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Eve. Yes, Chris Duke is really such a talented artist! 🙂

  6. Meg Jerrard
    | Reply

    Thanks for the introduction to Chris Duke – What a nice surprise to have stumbled upon his studio and been offered a tour of the inside! His works look beautiful, and I’m so impressed by the creativity of creating an accordion out of an old drawer!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, his creativity is really impressive! And since we last me him, we’re sure he’s created many other extraordinary music instruments!

  7. What an inspiration meet up! He is truly a man of many talents. Doing what you love is so important, and he is living proof.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Totally agree! And you know what the funny thing is? Chris Duke might not know it, but he truly inspired us. Meeting him was such a bliss. It was actually after talking to him that we decided to go forward in creating our own blog and doing what we love: traveling and writing travel stories. 🙂

  8. Jennifer
    | Reply

    Wow, he is amazing. It always surprises me how many amazing artists are hidden around the world and their work will only ever been seen by a few people. I would love a window painted by him.

  9. carla
    | Reply

    That is one beautiful thought about reaching inside of you and doing what you love! Duke is such a talent and wonderful work of art.

  10. Wow, that is one talented guy! I love how he paints from memory, and he’s right – the colours are brighter on glass, especially when the sunlight hits it! How beautiful.

  11. Indrani
    | Reply

    What a talented artist! I like how as a traveler we meet up with such wonderful people who are not so well known and are equally talented.
    Great to listen to him. And painting on reverse of glass panes is a new concept to me.

  12. hertraveltherapy
    | Reply

    This is amazing and I love stories like this. There are so many interesting people in the world who you would probably never meet if you didn’t take a second to be curious and open-minded.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! And yes you’re right: to make amazing encounters and discoveries you’ve got to go out and be open-minded! 🙂

  13. Lois Alter Mark
    | Reply

    How talented he is! I love learning all about this amazingly talented man who’s both an artist and a musician. His hand-painted window glasses are just stunning.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, Chris Duke is such a talented artist! We’re so lucky that we got to meet him and that he took time to chat with us in his garden. If you go to SF next time, you should definitely go have a look at his paintings.

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